Grasping at Straws


Most Americans have tired of the public debate about
abortion. The issue is complex, with good intentions on both sides of
the question. We all respect life and believe that women have a right
to decide about their bodies, lives and future-the autonomy principle.
Abortion doesn’t lend itself to sound bites, and most pro-choice
elected officials wish they’d never have to answer another question
about it. At the same time, they are constantly seeking, and hoping
for, a new sound bite that will just shut both sides up.

In 2004, a Democratic strategy shop, The Third Way,
developed a new tactic for Democrats running in conservative "pro-life"
districts. In a message memo called "Winning the Abortion Grays," they
suggested that candidates say "I will work to dramatically reduce the
number of abortions in America while protecting personal liberties."
The goal was tactical, not principled. It was not about preventing
abortion; it was about getting Democrats elected.

Around the same
time, pro-peace, anti-poverty, social justice Catholics and
evangelicals wanted to challenge the religious right and elect
progressives. They, too, wanted the abortion issue to go away. It is
hard to enter progressive politics if you’re not pro-choice, and they
were uncomfortable acknowledging their own positions on the issue.
Mostly, they wanted to talk about war, jobs, and the environment, not
sex and reproduction. After much pressure from both camps to be either
pro-choice or pro-life, they adopted the first part of the Third Way
message (abortion reduction), then ignored the second part by calling
it "common ground." For the most part, the two parties who have found
"common ground" swim in the same pond-they are both opposed to legal
abortion. The difference is narrow: one group has never made much of an
issue of abortion, and the other has been actively opposed to legal
abortion.

Other common-ground efforts on abortion have engaged in
much more outreach, worked hard to understand those who were on the
other side. Search for Common Ground,
a prestigious DC conflict-resolution group that works extensively on
peace issues, brought together people who truly disagreed to discuss
the issue for several years and make some common policy proposals. The Public Conversation Project
in Cambridge, Massachusetts facilitated many dialogues between
pro-choice and pro-life advocates: PCP brought together prominent
pro-choice leaders from Planned Parenthood and the Archdiocese of
Boston (among others) for a two-year dialogue on abortion following the
murder of a young receptionist at a clinic by an anti-abortion fanatic.

The current search for common ground seems far less serious
about abortion. And so far it hasn’t resulted in peace. What it has
done is some aggressive media outreach aimed at promoting its idea of
common ground. We caught a piece two religious leaders in the movement published recently in the Cleveland Plain Dealer
that exhibited a fairly belligerent style for "common ground,"
especially given the fact that neither of these leaders has reached out
to the pro-choice side of the debate. They claimed that since both
liberals and conservatives "have sharpened their knives" against them,
they are onto a good tactic. Sounds good at first blush, but when you
look behind the words, it becomes apparent that we are dealing with
classic smoke-and-mirrors politics…

For the complete essay "Grasping at Straws," visit Religion Dispatches.

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